Substantial autonomy or separate state?

Substantial autonomy or separate state?
By: Prof P. Ramasamy

The inability of the government of Sri Lanka to honestly and fairly address the issues of armed forces withdrawal from civilian areas and the lack of administrative mechanisms for the distribution of development funds are a cause of great concern to the Tamil people. It is the non-fulfillment of these two conditions that paved for the LTTE to withdraw from participating in the peace process in general and in the donor conference scheduled in Tokyo in the near future. Whether or not the LTTE would participate in the Tokyo conference is not certain, although a number of outside bodies have sought to influence the LTTE. In the ultimate sense, it is not so much about these two conditions but whether the Sinhala establishments are serious about providing substantial autonomy for Tamils in the country.

The path to a successful negotiated political settlement is a long and a difficult one. The Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) should not be construed as the permanent peace document. Far from it; it merely outlines the steps to be taken to end more than twenty years of bloodshed between the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka. Just because the LTTE temporarily pulled out of the peace process does not mean that road to a peaceful solution has been ruled out. Rather the international community and the United States in particular should not be unduly concerned about the LTTE’s suspension of peace talks. Rather than raising hue and cry about the suspension, some of the countries interested in the peace process should take a moment to understand the reasons and circumstances under which the suspension was called for.

I personally think that LTTE has done a great favour to rejuvenate the peace process by this ordering this suspension. Suspensions and temporary withdrawals are normal aspects of any peace process. It would be naïve or foolish to expect the CoHA to provide a perfect blue-print for the derivation of permanent solution. CoHA is merely a mechanism that seeks to provide some guidance as how peace can be attained in the long run provided both the parties to the conflict understand the appreciate the need to bring normalcy and stability to the civilian population. Thus, without addressing the basic humanitarian concerns of the civilian population in the north and east, there is no way to lay the proper foundation for a durable peace in the country. The very fact that the both the parties adhered to the basic guidelines mediated by the Norwegian government for nearly one and half years clearly demonstrates the desire to end the bloody conflict in the country.

The international community should not take an extreme alarmist position on the LTTE’s non-participation in the peace talks and most importantly in the scheduled donor conference in Tokyo. It is rather clear that the government of Sri Lanka despite a number of rounds of peace talks simply has not addressed the question of the armed forces withdrawing from the civilian areas both in the north and east. It is not that LTTE is asking for the complete withdrawal of forces from Tamil areas, but for them to merely to pull back so that the displaced civilians could be re-settled in their former homes. Unless the armed forces complete this withdrawal process as requested by the LTTE, there is no point for the outfit to engage in further peace talks. Participation would merely indicate the general weakness of the LTTE. The divisions and conflicts with the Sri Lankan Sinhala establishment making it difficult for this withdrawal is not the primary concern of the LTTE.

The LTTE’s withdrawal from the talks and its possible non-participation in the Tokyo donor conference is also related to the question of distribution of funds for the development of Tamil areas. However, under the existing arrangement, it is only the Sri Lankan parliament under the domination of Sinhala politicians that will have complete say as to how funds would be distributed. Going by the past experience, there is no guarantee that the Tamil areas would be given priority. The LTTE’s position is thus: unless there are administrative mechanisms set up for the balanced distribution of development funds, it serves no purpose for the outfit to attend the conference. Unless concrete steps are taken to address this fundamental issue of distribution, participation of the LTTE in the donor conference in Tokyo will have no meaning.

Unless these two conditions are fulfilled, the LTTE should make it known loud and clear that it will have nothing to do with the peace talks or attend the forthcoming conference in Tokyo. While it is understandable that some outside parties are trying to influence the LTTE to return to the negotiating table, there is nothing concrete being offered to placate the LTTE or the Tamil people in general. Enough is enough. There is no way for the LTTE to re-integrate itself in the peace process without obtaining concrete benefits from the government of Sri Lanka. Participation in the peace process without the fulfillment of these two conditions would provide much sustenance to the United States that is seeking to interfere in the ethnic conflict in the island. As far as Tamils are concerned, the United States does not have the legitimacy or the moral authority to intervene and influence the course of events in the country.

What is most worrisome to the LTTE is not so much the non-fulfillment of the above two conditions, but to what extent the government of Sri Lanka is committed to provide substantial autonomy for Tamils. If the government does not even have the political will to address these two issues, then how is it going to devolve political, social, and cultural autonomy to Tamils. As stated by the LTTE in the initial rounds of peace negotiations, if substantial autonomy was not provided for Tamils, then it would revert to its independence option. Is the government of Sri Lanka by not addressing these two pressing issues unwittingly laying the grounds for the eventual adoption of the independence formula?

It should be remembered that the LTTE never abandoned its quest for independence. The offer it gave to the government in the beginning stages of the peace talks was that in the absence of substantial autonomy for Tamils, then it would have no choice but pursue its independence option. I don’t think that the LTTE has abandoned its preference for substantial autonomy, although there are no positive indications on the part of the Sinhala government that it is serious about giving Tamils a full-fledged autonomy.

If the above mentioned two conditions are not resolved in the near foreseeable future, there is possibility that LTTE might be less inclined to appreciate the benefits of substantial autonomy. Unless the Sinhala power centers appreciate the real concerns of Tamils, it would be difficult to preach the need to maintain the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. I don’t think that the LTTE wants complete independence, but the Sinhala establishments are not providing any substantial benefits for the former to maintain its faith in the federal process.

Source: TamilCanadian